Researchers have claimed that the woman registered as the world’s oldest person may actually have been her daughter, who assumed her identity to avoid paying inheritance taxes.
French national Jeanne Calment is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest person to have ever lived and was purportedly 122 years and 164 days old when she died in 1997.
However, Russian researchers have claimed to have unearthed evidence that Calment actually died in 1934 and her daughter assumed her identity as part of a tax evasion ploy.
Calment and her husband were the joint owners of a large drapery store in her hometown of Arles, Provence. According to the researchers, if her death had been registered her husband would have had to pay inheritance tax of up to 38% on his wife’s half of the business.
Genealogist Yuri Deigin, who runs a biotech business, believes that to avoid any potential tax bill Calment’s daughter Yvonne took over her identity. Yvonne Calment allegedly died in 1934, but analysing her death certificate in a blog post Deigin stated that it was issued on the basis of testimony from a sole witness, a 71-year-old unemployed woman (not a doctor or nurse) who “saw her dead”.
According to Deigin, photographs of Yvonne Calment taken before her death showed that she had exactly the same nose and ear shape as the woman made famous as Jeanne Calment.
Deigin’s thesis is backed by research from compatriot Nikolay Zak published in December. Zak, a mathematician, refers to “multiple contradictions” in interviews, biographies, photos and documents surrounding the identity of the world’s oldest person, stating that he is seeking to use the case as “an example of the vulnerability of seemingly well-established facts”.
Zak also pointed to the disproportionately large number of errors (accidental or otherwise) on the identity documents of confirmed supercentenarians (those whose age surpasses 110), and the fact that despite many years of working with Calment the gerontological community was unable to obtain biomaterials to confirm her age based on forensic methods.
Jeanne Calment: Image from Guinessworldrecords.com
Gerontologist Valery Novoselov, who originally called for the investigation into Calment’s age, said he first became suspicious because Jeanne didn't fit typical data trends. “Jeanne is a dot away from the main trend,” Novoselov told the Life Extension Advocacy Foundation. "Whenever a new record is set, the person dies several days or several weeks later, very rarely several months later. However, we are never speaking about years apart, definitely not several years."
Claims are ‘nonsense’
The Russian research has caused indignation in Calment’s home country of France, with one eminent researcher labelling the claims as “nonsense”.
Jean-Marie Robine, who participated in the validation of Calment’s age for the Guinness Book of World Records, told the Associated Press that no one has ever done so much to prove a person’s age.
“We pulled out all the stops to work on her. We never found anything to suggest the slightest doubt on her age,” said Robine, who went on to label the Russian theories “defamatory”.
Robine also expressed scepticism that the community of Arles could have kept up a lie of that magnitude for more than 80 years.
“Do you have any idea how many people would have needed to lie?” Robine said. “One day Fernand Calment starts passing off his daughter as his wife and everyone keeps quiet about it? It’s preposterous.”
Along with her remarkable longevity and dislike of both taxation and socialists, Calment is also known for setting up one of the world’s most famous annuities with solicitor André-François Raffray.
In 1965 Raffray (then aged 42) agreed to pay Calment (then 90) 2,500 francs monthly in exchange for acquiring her apartment in the centre of Arles when she died. However, for the next 30 years Raffray paid out more than twice the value of the apartment before succumbing to cancer two years before Jeanne’s death.
According to Novoselov, during the early 1930s Calment’s family was issued with several large tax bills by the authorities. “Her mother-in-law and her father both died in 1931, and the family had to pay huge inheritance taxes in each case," Novoselov said. "If Jeanne had died, her daughter Yvonne and her husband would have to pay a lot of money."
While the only official way to confirm the truth would be to exhume both bodies for testing, this is unlikely to happen as it would require family consent and extensive legal work.